July 16, 2014 at 10:53 pm

Orr 'very supportive' of Detroit water shut-offs for nonpayment

Kevyn Orr talks about the water problem in Detroit
Kevyn Orr talks about the water problem in Detroit: Detroit's emergency manager on water shutoffs and assistance with bill payments

Detroit — Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr is defending the city’s water department against criticism that it has unfairly targeted poor residents with water shut-offs over delinquent bills.

Orr, in an interview with The Detroit News on Wednesday, stressed that the vast majority of Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s residential customers are paying their bills, and help is available for those who truly can’t.

“I’m very supportive of the water department’s and the Board of Water Commissioners’ decision to do what every other regulated utility does in the United States, which is, if you use water you’ve got to pay for it,” Orr said.

He added that an assistance program is in place with more than $1 million in funding for customers who can’t afford water. It’s financed by a voluntary 50-cent surcharge the department has collected for several years.

“All they need to do is call,” he said. “Maybe we need to reiterate that to people over the next couple of weeks.”

Orr addressed the concerns a day after the judge presiding over Detroit’s bankruptcy called the water shut-offs “bad publicity” for the city and told the water department to devise more ways to help residents pay bills.

Detroit had 176,879 active residential water accounts as of June 30. Of those, about 15,000 have experienced shut-offs. Thousands of those had water restored within 48 hours after paying their overdue bills or getting into a payment program. In June, for example, 3,118 had their water restored after making amends out of the 7,210 cutoffs, DWSD officials said. It’s suspected that hundreds more had water illegally turned back on.

“Let’s tamp down the verbiage and hysteria out there that we are cutting off water to tens of thousands of people,” he said. “That’s just not true.”

Orr on Wednesday said more needs to be done to differentiate the legitimate residential accounts from those connected to blighted and abandoned properties, or occupied by squatters or used as drug houses — conduct that the city doesn’t want to facilitate.

“Let’s find the legitimate need, but the scofflaws and the people gaming the system, let’s either bring them into compliance or not provide them with a free service,” he said. “That’s not fair.”

Demeeko Williams, an organizer with the grass-roots group Detroit Water Brigade, said people are upset about the shut-offs. He wants the water department to hold meetings where residents can learn about their options.

“Kevyn Orr is not understanding the situation of Detroit,” Williams said. “Detroit is in dire needs. What he’s doing is putting people at risk. Detroit is in a situation where we have been demoralized. We have been shamed. And now with this water shut-off situation, we’re being run out. It’s not that they don’t want to pay their bills. They don’t have the means.”

The water department implemented the aggressive shut-off program in the spring in an effort to collect on delinquent accounts.

“It’s a problem that’s affecting this bankruptcy,” U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes said Tuesday, encouraging the water department to return to court Monday with further options for those who can’t pay.

Rhodes said the city is “getting a reputation not only in this country but around the world” for the shut-offs — causing “a lot of anger” and hardship among residents. In late June, three United Nations experts said Detroit’s shut-off policy may violate international human rights.

Deputy water director Darryl Latimer has said the once-lax department’s new policy has shut off water to customers more than 60 days late or $150 behind in their bills. The average residential delinquency is $540. The average monthly household bill is about $75.

Latimer said the department shuts off water based on the delinquent addresses.

“We bill property,” Latimer told Rhodes Tuesday. “We don’t know what individuals or how many individuals or if they have affordability issues.”

Residents behind on their water bills can choose a plan that typically involves paying 30 percent of the outstanding bill and then the remainder — while keeping current on the present bill — over as long as 36 months.

The department has said it refers those with financial troubles to aid organizations at the county and state levels, including the Department of Human Services and The Heat and Warmth Fund, Latimer said. And it has a “water fair” to explain payment options.

Detroit’s City Council recently approved a rate increase of 8.7 percent. The increase not only covers the bills of city rate payers, but also the costs associated with individuals who are not paying or are gaming the system.

A rally and demonstration against shut-offs is planned for Friday by National Nurses United and others, including self-described progressives and political activists who are gathered in Detroit for the Netroots Nation convention.

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Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr stressed that the vast majority of Detroit Water and Sewerage Department's residential customers are paying their bills and assistance is available for those who truly can't. / Clarence Tabb Jr / The Detroit News